Most women of my “certain age” line their walls or fill their shelves with photos of children and grandchildren—happy, gap-toothed smiles inside glossy frames. For years, my walls were hung with beautiful color photos and magazine spreads of my houses, each one unique, expertly decorated, and having its own given name: Hedgerose, Rose Bay, Maple Cottage, Toad Hall. I thought that the physical space, the walls, the paint, the rugs and windows, the way the chairs faced and how the side tables accented a room, the meals that came out of the kitchen—everything that made a house look great and feel great—were the building blocks of home. I believed all it took was organization, hard work, and planning.
Now all my plans had come undone. As I stood on the threshold of sixty, my marriage was over, I was disconnected from my sons, I spent too little meaningful time with my grandchildren.
To the outside world, I was the co-founder of one of the most idyllic spots on earth, Blackberry Farm. It was not a farm in the conventional sense of raising dairy cattle or crops. Rather, my husband, Sandy, and I had started with a dilapidated, 1940 low-ceiling house with eight guest rooms and grew it into a Relais & Châteaux estate and restaurant, a stylish, award-winning destination at the edge of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. Its iconic views, the shimmering trees and hills, the white-painted rockers perched above a sweeping lawn, were routinely featured in glossy lifestyle and travel magazines. People began referring to it simply as “Blackberry.”
Beyond Blackberry, I was known for my own cooking and entertaining, for being married to Sandy, founder of the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain, and for my photogenic family and two successful sons. And I never dissuaded anyone, not even my mother, my sisters, or my closest friends, that this was my story until I could no longer paper over and pretend. Until I had no choice but to tell my truth.
I began by giving up what I had clung to the longest: my image of the perfect home. From a multi-bedroom house, I moved to a 324-square-foot farm shed on the edge of Blackberry—a space that not long before had been piled high with broken Christmas decorations that no one could quite commit to the rubbish bin. When I stepped into that single room, I left behind the cushion of things, an oversize closet, kitchen gadgets, a long dining table, and matched sets of comfy chairs. Suddenly unburdened of creature comforts and objects, I had no choice but to meet myself head-on.
If I wanted a view, I would have to step outside into whatever weather we were having and let my eyes rest on the mountains the Cherokee Indians had named the Great Blue Hills of God. If I wanted a rush of cooling air, I would have to stand and breathe the morning fog rising from the creek or the clumps of heavy dew on the meadow. If I wanted people, I would have to intentionally seek them. If I wanted a project, the only available thing to be worked on was me, perhaps the hardest renovation of all.
But I could not begin to build a future until I found a new foundation on which to rebuild my life. It began with a prayer:
Grant me courage,
Grant me wisdom
To learn from the past
And not be crippled by it.
So that like Joseph, I may be a
Blessing to my earthly family
And the world at large.
In Jesus’ name,
Starting with those words, I did something I had never done before: I told the truth to myself. I realized I had helped to create a place of flawless beauty, accolades, and daily perfection, Blackberry Farm, while living a life that was flawed. Now, I could finally see the scars. What I learned was that my real story was not the one I had expected. It’s a story about success, yes, but also about tragedy and heartache. Ultimately, it is a story of deciding to consciously choose joy and live through pain, with a deep and abiding faith in God.
When I started on this journey, I did not know all the ways in which life could be hard and yet still be beautiful. I did not know that seeking forgiveness and finding God’s fierce love would change so many things. I was still learning that home is not a physical place, but the space you make inside your heart. Only when I let go of perfectionism and learned to sit with devastation, and from there slowly breathe in meaning, did I discover that what I had built was not a picture-perfect life, but a real and beautiful one, stronger for the breaking.